Floating like Duckweed
In Phnom Penh Prison, I was separated from Chan, my Cambodian friend, as they placed the inmates from Koh Tralach into cells with existing prisoners. The mosquitoes and intense cold kept me from sleeping. Families of the Cambodian prisoners had brought them mosquito nets, but my hometown was so far away, and no one in my family even knew I was imprisoned here. I didn’t own another set of clothes—let alone a mosquito net or a blanket.
One evening, when it was almost dark, as I was lying on the prison’s floor feeling sorry for myself, a bundle dropped in front of me. I turned to see where it came from and saw a female prison guard smiling outside of my cell. She waved to me and spoke softly in Khmer, “Don’t tell anyone…”
Then she left. Her words were short, but from her gesture I understood that the bundle was for me. Not wasting any time, I opened it up, and my heart filled with happiness. I never expected a prison guard to be so charitable. The guard, who was in her thirties, was the same one who supervised the inmates and brought them from the cells to the work site. Without me noticing, she had seen and understood what I needed most right now, and provided it.
In the bundle was a change of clothes. They were not new, but for me at that moment, they were worth more than an emperor’s robes.
I embraced the clothes and thought about the actions of the prison guard. Despite being a woman in uniform, she behaved like other Khmer women I had observed: sweet and gentle. She must have realized that I spoke only a little Khmer, as she often used sign language to direct me in my work tasks. She never cursed or used foul words with me. However, I never expected her to be so kind as to secretly give me clothes.
I wore my new shirt over my ragged one and covered myself with the krama, which had been used to make the bundle. I leaned my back against the wall and bitterly recalled my past.
I am a Phuthai from Khammouane, which lies along the Lao-Vietnamese border. I was born to a poor farming family with many children. When I graduated from high school, I was supposed to study at a college in Vientiane. However, since the trip to the capital took about two weeks and staying in Vientiane would be expensive, my father decided to send me to Hue, in Vietnam, instead.
At my university in Hue, I was studying with Lao, Vietnamese, and Cambodian students. At the time, the revolutionary movement had exploded in Vietnam, but I did not yet know what a revolution was. In 1945, as the revolutionary movement was spreading all over the three countries of Indochina, I returned to Laos. Then the French colonial administration lost the war and withdrew, but Indochina was soon occupied by Japanese Fascists.
The war raged as Cambodians, Laotians, and Vietnamese rose up and fought against the foreign powers. Outraged by the invasions and caring about the fate of my country, I began to realize my obligations as a citizen. I became immersed in the revolution and Marxist-Leninism and eventually joined the Lao People’s Liberation Movement.
Six months later, I was assigned to work in the propaganda group to recruit more people to our cause. When the Japanese lost World War II and sent their army home, the French resumed their occupation of Indochina. However, under the guidance of the Indochinese Communist Party, the nationalist movements in the three countries still fought for independence.
Unfortunately, one rainy season, I was arrested in a village and deported to Phnom Penh. I was sentenced to imprisonment in Koh Tralach, where I remained for two years. But now I had good reason to hope that I would soon be freed. The French had brought prisoners like me from Koh Tralach for a retrial in Phnom Penh because the island was overcrowded with political prisoners. The French had decided to release some who had been given light sentences.
As I was lost in thought, someone shoved me to ground so that I could be shackled. That night, I was able to sleep soundly for the first time since being imprisoned because I had a blanket—the krama—thanks to the kindness of a prison guard whom I would never forget.
I was the only foreign inmate there; the rest were Cambodians. I stayed in Phnom Penh Prison for three more months before my retrial took place in a military court. The judges were all French, but my two attorneys were Cambodians. Probably thanks to the large number of political prisoners and the lack of space for more, the attorneys kept demanding my release, which was eventually granted.
A few hours later, I was brought before the Prison Chief. After giving me many warnings, he issued me a letter of release and let me go. My only possessions were a change of clothes and the krama, both gifted to me by the kind guard. I had no money, nothing else at all.
For someone new in town like me, Phnom Penh seemed huge. The markets were crowded with people while the roads formed a giant chessboard. I saw shops selling expensive goods and people smiling. I felt I was the only one who was sad and lonely. I walked and walked without any specific direction until nearly dawn. Finally, I reached a small hill with a massive stupa and temple at the top. It was a clean place, so I decided to rest there for the night.
I used a broken tree branch to sweep a small open space for me to sleep, south of the temple, and then lay down, my stomach growling. When night came, I trembled in the sharp cold, but my spirit felt as free as a bird that had just been released from its cage. For the first time in two years, I was able to sleep without being shackled or watched by guards.
I don’t know how long I slept, but when the noises of birds in the trees woke me, the sun was already high. When I sat up, I saw an old monk holding a broom and staring cautiously at me. I knelt and bowed to him and asked for the broom to sweep the place for him. He smiled gently, and after learning I was Lao, he spoke to me in Thai. “I’m sure you understand Thai, don’t you?”
“Yes, sir, I can understand some. Thai and Lao languages are similar.”
“Don’t you have a home? Why were you sleeping here?”
“I was arrested by the French in Laos, and they detained me in Koh Tralach for two years. They just released me yesterday.”
He slowly nodded. “My dwelling is in the north of the temple. You can go there later to have some porridge.”
That day, I wandered around the city, thinking about what I could do for a living and how I could save money to return to Laos. I did not speak enough Khmer or know about the daily life of Cambodian people.
Southeast of the hill was a large market crowded with people and big shops owned by Chinese. Vietnamese people sold their goods in the market, while Cambodian vendors peddled their stuff from baskets on the street. South of the market lay a port, where ships and small boats entered and exited every day. There I saw many coolies who made their living carrying heavy loads. Seeing them, I realized there was a job for me.
That evening, I went back to my place near the temple. By now I knew that the hill was called Phnom Daun Penh while the temple on it was known as Wat Phnom. Everyone here knew Wat Phnom because it was the symbol of Phnom Penh, as Pha That Luang was to Vientiane.
Not long after I lay down, the monk who spoke Thai appeared again. He gave me a mat, a blanket, and a piece of cloth to cover myself while bathing. I knelt and bowed before him for his kindness. After giving me a few words of advice, he left. His kindness reminded me of the charitable prison guard who had given me clothes.
That night I slept soundly and more comfortably than ever, like a rich man sleeping in his mansion.
Coincidence or Fate
The next morning, I went to the port to ask for work as a coolie. The job wasn’t hard; besides, I had served two years of hard labor in prison.
One day, I was carrying a hundred-kilogram sack of beans on my back from the pier to the shoreline. As I balanced on a wooden bridge, a Khmer coolie shouted to me, “Wow! Lao, you can carry really heavy weight!”
None of the Khmer coolies at the pier knew my name, but since they knew that I was Lao, they called me “Lao.”
“After just a few days, our Lao friend can carry such a heavy load!” another Khmer coolie shouted.
Dropping the bean sack in its place, I wiped the sweat from my forehead and began walking back toward the pier where several coolies were taking a rest. On seeing me they called out, “Hey, our Lao friend! Come for a smoke break.”
All the workers here liked me because they saw that I was softspoken and kind. As I heard my new friends beckoning me, I saw a young lady washing clothes on the bow of a large fishing boat and looking at me timidly. When our eyes met, it gave me a strange feeling of confusion, and she too turned her face away.
Chatting with my friends, I felt some sort of mystic force compel me to look at the young lady again and again.
After a while, she turned her face up to look back at me, but at the moment she met my eyes, she looked down again—this time revealing a shy smile.
I rested, then returned to the ship to carry more bean sacks. As I dropped a sack onto the pile at the shoreline, an old lady carrying a large basket filled with her shopping approached me and asked, “Excuse me, can you help me carry that bag to my boat?”
As she spoke, she pointed to a sack containing about two tau [about four pecks] of rice.
I replied as I wiped dirt off my shoulder. “Yes, which one’s your boat?”
“Just follow me.”
I lifted the rice sack onto my shoulder and followed her to the pier. At the top of the ramp, she walked to the boat where the young lady was washing clothes.
Seeing the older woman approaching, the young one got up and took the heavy basket from her, then said happily, “Mother, you are back from the market? I haven’t cooked the rice yet.”
“It’s okay. The sun is not high yet.”
I understood then that the older lady was the owner of the boat and the young one was her daughter.
After telling me where to place the rice sack, the old lady put her hand into her pocket and said, “How much do I owe you?”
“It’s okay, auntie. I want nothing for it,” I replied, shaking my head.
“Ah, why don’t you want to be paid?” the old lady asked, opening her eyes wide.
“Your sack of rice isn’t heavy at all. Please think of it as me just helping you out.”
Despite my answer, the old lady hesitated. Her daughter discreetly watched me and said, “He is a Lao national, Mother.”
Hearing this, the old lady gave me a friendly smile and said in Lao, “Please tell me your name.”
“Yes!…My name is Bophan Suvanthon,” I replied.
As there were still many bean sacks in the ship I had been working on, I hurriedly said goodbye to the old lady and left to get back. I did not want to lose any of my wages for the day.
At noon, I and the other coolies had our lunch break. I walked to wash myself at the pier and get ready to buy my lunch at the nearby market. Just then, I saw the young lady appear at the bow of her boat and call out to me. “My parents want to invite you to join us for lunch.”
I was shocked; I hadn’t expected her to speak to me in Lao. I started to wonder whether her parents were Lao or Khmer. Even more surprising, I had just met her mother and had only carried a small sack of rice for her. Why was she kind enough to invite me for lunch?
Seeing that I was hesitant, the girl spoke again. “Please come on up! My father and mother are waiting to meet you.”
When she said this, it would have been impolite for me to refuse. Also, I wanted to keep my manly bearing. So I smiled back and headed toward her boat.
The boat was bigger than the others around it and had a large, strong roof. A wall of wood divided the interior into two spacious rooms with clean wooden floors.
Inside, a man in his forties and the old lady were waiting for me. I guessed he was the young lady’s father.
I greeted him politely and sat facing him. His wife brought a teapot and poured hot tea into three cups, handing one to me.
“Have some tea first, my dear,” she said.
“Thank you,” I replied, reaching for the cup with both hands.
Her husband stared at me, eyeing me from head to toe, and finally asked, “I heard you are Lao, is that right?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Which ethnic group are you from?”
“I’m of Phuthai heritage.”
“From what province?”
“I’m from Khammouane.”
“What’s your name? And how old are you?”
“My name is Bophan Suvanthon. I’m twenty this year.”
He sipped his tea, and then continued. “I heard from my daughter, Mealea, that there was a port coolie from Laos. So I wanted to learn more about you. How did you end up here? In Phnom Penh, we rarely run into Lao people.”
Since his Lao was so much better than his wife’s and daughter’s, I decided to ask, “Excuse me, but are you Lao too?”
“No, I’m Khmer. But my hometown’s in Stung Treng; that’s why I can speak Lao. My wife’s hometown is Kratie, and that is where my daughter, Mealea, grew up, so they can also speak Lao.”
I understood then why all the members of this family could speak my country’s language. The father’s hometown, Stung Treng, bordered Champasak, in Laos. Many Lao people resided in Stung Treng!
I took another sip of tea and said, “I don’t know anyone in Phnom Penh and have never encountered any Lao nationals either. Meeting you and your family really makes me happy.”
The boat master chuckled and asked me sympathetically, “If you don’t have any relatives or know anyone here, why did you come to Phnom Penh?”
I suddenly felt hesitant and ashamed to tell them the truth: that I had been in prison at Koh Tralach. Maybe they would stop being friendly. Yet lying to them would mean betraying my conscience. Eventually, I told them all about myself.
Afterwards, the husband and wife looked at one another without speaking. Then the mother called out to Mealea in Khmer to bring our lunch. The daughter responded in a lovely soft voice, then brought out a tray with hot dishes.
As Mealea disappeared back inside, the couple asked me to enjoy the meal. In the awkward silence, I wondered what they were thinking about me. I felt as if I were riding a tiger’s back: I could neither stay on nor get off. I tried my best to bear my shame and continue sharing the meal with them.
After the meal, Mealea came to take away the dishes. Her father was smiling again and handed me a small package of tobacco, while rolling a cigarette for himself. “My name is Reus, and my wife is Hem,” he said. “I have two children. You already met my daughter. Her little brother is at our home.”
I tried to change the subject by asking him, “Where is your home?”
Hem, who had been quiet, answered for her husband. “Our house is in Chroy Chongvar, but I come to sell our fish at this pier every day. I am very sorry for your being so far away from your hometown. Please come to visit us whenever you see our boat. You can have all the fish you want.”
Not until then had I understood my hosts’ minds. Their earlier quietness was caused not by their disapproval of me but rather their pity.
So I sincerely thanked them. “I really appreciate your kindness for a homeless person like me…”
The father exhaled cigarette smoke and said, “The Khmer character is to sympathize with the poor and underprivileged. Don’t be ashamed of your job. No work is lowly as long as you don’t steal from anyone. In my younger days, I used to struggle like you. I used to pull a rickshaw, and worked as a coolie and a servant. It was not until I reached this age that I managed to build a proper life for my family.”
The consoling words of my host warmed my heart and melted away my shame.
As I chatted with her father, Mealea kept looking at me demurely. She was petite and had long hair that fell below her shoulders, dark eyes, a small nose and lips, and clear brown skin. Whenever our eyes met, I felt my heart thumping and my body warming all over.
As my mind was distracted by her, I worried that I might say something wrong, so I hurriedly said goodbye to the couple and their daughter.
From that day on, whenever her boat was at the pier, Mealea always offered me fish from her mother. Her parents asked me to join them at lunch. As time went by, our friendship grew. Mealea and I gradually became bold enough to tease each other. Whenever I didn’t see her boat at the pier, I felt a perplexing sense of . . . loneliness.
From Out of the Shadows of Angkor: Cambodian Poetry, Prose, and Performance through the Ages, edited by Sharon May, Christophe Macquet, Trent Walker, Phina So, and Rinith Taing. © Ty Kesey. Translation © 2022 Rinith Taing. Published 2022 by the University of Hawai‘i Press, 2022. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.